Concentration Training For Peak Performance
Robert M. Nideffer
I would like to thank the conference organizers for giving me an opportunity to
address such a distinguished audience. I must apologize at the start of this
presentation for reading this paper to you. I much prefer to speak directly to my
audience. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Polish and what I have to say is not easy
to translate. By staying closely to this paper I will help ensure that what I want to
say makes sense to you. Hopefully, we will have time for questions at the end
and at that time I can speak more directly to you and to your needs.
It was suggested to me, that I talk about the concentration skills training many of
the athletes I work with go through in an attempt to optimize their performance at
the Olympic games. That is what I am going to talk about today. I will do that by
talking about concentration skills training at three different points in time:
1. Concentration skills training that begins very early in the athlete’s career
and continues throughout.
2. Concentration skills training that is designed to deal more specifically with
the conditions the athlete is likely to encounter at the Olympic Games.
3. Crisis interventions engaged in by coaches and support staff (e.g., sport
psychologists) at the Olympic Games to externally redirect the athletes
focus of concentration.
The ultimate goal of concentration skills training and of crisis intervention with
Olympic level athletes, is to help the individual reach that state of physical and
mental preparation that leads to optimal performance. As a sport psychologist, I
can’t do that unless I can clearly define the conditions that are necessary for
optimal performance to occur.
For you as coaches to believe in the usefulness of any concentration skills
training program I might suggest, I need to be able to show you how the training
process will have a direct influence on the athletes performance. It isn’t enough
to say an athlete needs to be more relaxed, or more confident, more intense, or
more focused. To me, that’s like saying to a swimmer, "you need to swim faster."
Technically, a coach should be able to explain why a different hand position will
lead to increased power and speed through the water. Likewise, a sport
psychologist needs to be able to say why a relaxation procedure, or a procedure
designed to increase emotional arousal will improve performance.
In the 100 meter final at the Olympic games a tenth of a second may separate all
eight athletes. Three factors will contribute to who wins and who loses. Those are
the quickness with which the athlete reacts to the start, the athlete’s speed of
turn over, and the athlete’s stride length. If you are a sprinter, and I am trying to
use psychological techniques to optimize your performance, my intervention
must have a direct effect on one of those three factors. If I tell you that you will
run faster if you relax, then I should be able to convince you that relaxation will
affect your start, or your stride length, or your speed of turn over, in a positive
For you to see how the concentration skills training that I will talk about can have
a direct effect on performance, you need to understand the different kinds of
concentration skills an athlete must have for optimal performance. You also need
to understand the connections between an athlete’s focus of concentration, his or
her level of emotional arousal, and performance.
Concentration and Optimal Performance
Let me define concentration for you. Your focus of concentration is constantly
shifting along two dimension. A dimension of width, and a dimension related to
the direction of focus. Along the width dimension there are times when you have
a very narrow focus, it’s like looking through a zoom lens on a camera. A sprinter
for example might focus all of his attention on the starter. There are other times
when you have a very broad focus of concentration like looking through the wide
angle lens of a camera. A basketball player on a fast break wants to be able to
see the whole court. The direction of your focus can be either internal, attending
to your own thoughts and feelings, or external, attending to events going on in
the world around you. These two dimensions of concentration interact with each
other creating four distinct types or styles of concentration. These are shown in
the figure below.
At any point in time, an athlete’s focus of concentration is in one of the four areas
shown above. Athletes use a broad-external focus of concentration to assess
what’s going on in the world around them, to make sure they are ready to react
when called upon to do so. The master of the martial arts who is surrounded and
about to be attacked needs a very broad-external focus of concentration.
Athletes use a broad-internal focus of concentration to problem solve, to make
strategic decisions, to develop training goals and training programs, to anticipate
the moves of the competition. This type of concentration requires the athlete to
mentally cross time zones. To take immediate information and use that to recall
information from the past which is then useful for predicting the future. In the
figure above, the coach has reacted to external conditions which suggest that
something needs to happen or his team may lose. He assesses the immediate
conditions and then thinks about similar situations and about the management
choices he has made in the past. He then uses that information to predict the
best course of action and make a decision.
Athletes use a narrow internal focus of concentration to organize information and
to mentally rehearse or practice. The diver in the figure is mentally practicing his
next dive, in a very systematic, structured way.
At the point in time a critical move needs to be made in sport, athletes are
typically required to develop a very narrow-external focus. The tennis players
focus becomes increasingly narrow as the ball approaches, and then
immediately broadens once she executes the shot.
To be effective, athletes must be able to shift their focus of concentration in
response to the changing demands of the performance situation.
At an elite or world class level, within the actual competitive environment,
success in most sports depends upon the athlete’s ability to reduce the need for
an internal focus, and instead, to remain focused almost exclusively on the things
going on in the competitive arena. When the athlete is able to do this he or she
enters "the zone." When that happens, the athlete experiences the following: 1)
Time seems slowed down; 2) The athlete feels as if he or she is in complete
control, knowing what’s going to happen almost before it happens, and; 3)
Performance seems almost effortless, and totally automatic.
Think of Your Brain as a Camera
You can understand this if you will think of your brain as a camera that can take
40 pictures a second. Under normal conditions, your camera brain takes an
equal number of pictures in each of the concentration areas. Now, think of a shot
on goal in soccer that takes one second to travel from the foot of the kicker to the
goal. The goalie’s perception of how quickly the ball gets to him, will depend
upon the number of pictures the brain takes of the ball. If, under normal
conditions the camera is focused internally on the goalies thoughts and feelings
for half of the time, then twenty pictures will be taken of the ball. If the athlete
stops all internal processing the camera brain takes 40 pictures of the ball. With
twice as many pictures to look at, the ball seems to come to the athlete much
more slowly. The thing for you to remember from this is that:
• The athlete’s perception of the passage of time is dependent upon the
direction of his focus of concentration. The more internal the focus, the
faster time seems to pass. The more external the focus, the slower it
passes and the more time the athlete feel’s he has to react.
Another aspect of concentration that you need to be sensitive to is the fact that
the athlete’s ability to shift concentration along the dimension of width, is directly
related to his or her level of emotional arousal. The higher the level of emotional
arousal the narrower the athlete’s focus of concentration and the less capable he
or she is of broadening it. Whether a high level of arousal, and a correspondingly
narrow focus of concentration is good or bad, will depend upon the demands of
the performance environment. If the athlete needs a broad focus of attention,
and/or must make adjustments to changing conditions, then a high level of
emotional arousal is likely to interfere.
What’s Required For Optimal Performance?
Now, with that basic understanding of the different types of concentration and
with an understanding of how concentration is related to the passage of time and
how it is affected by the athlete’s level of emotional arousal let me talk about the
conditions necessary for optimal performance. Remember, that in most sport
situations athlete’s can perform at an optimal level only when they have
developed their skills to the point that those skills can be executed automatically,
without any conscious direction on the part of the athlete. As long as an athlete
has to mentally talk himself through a performance, or through the execution of a
particular technique he can’t get into the zone. The same is thing is true for the
athlete who has to engage in conscious thinking to recover from a mistake or the
In sport, power, coordination, and timing are all dependent upon the movement
of the athlete’s body around his or her center of mass. If we draw a vertical line
through the middle of an athlete’s body, and then also draw a horizontal line,
where those two line’s intersect is the athlete’s center of mass. Think of an hitter
in the sport of baseball who swings at a pitch. From the time the pitcher begins
his delivery until the athlete completes his swing, there are several shifts in the
distribution of the athlete’s weight around his center of mass.
As the pitcher begins his wind up the athlete relaxes muscle tension in his legs
and physically lowers his center of mass. As the pitcher begins to release the ball
the athlete shifts most of his weight to his back foot. As he initiates his swing the
weight is transferred forward and timed so that his weight is moving through his
center of mass and toward his front foot as the bat makes contact with the ball.
When timing is perfect, the athlete gets maximum power out of his swing. If the
athlete is too eager and rushes, he has transferred his weight to his front foot
before making contact with the ball. He has had to adjust his bat speed and even
if he makes contact with the ball he has no power. The same thing is true if he
waits too long to begin his swing. If he is late, his weight is on his back foot and
all of his power has to come from the speed of his bat, with no real force behind
The timing which allows the athlete to transfer his weight at the right instant is
dependent upon focus of concentration and the ability to visually pick up the ball
on release from the pitcher. It’s also about watching the ball as it approaches the
plate so that the brain can accurately judge the speed and position of the ball.
Any shifts of the brain’s camera to internal thoughts and/or feelings will reduce
the number of pictures the hitter is able to take as the ball approaches the plate.
For that reason, adjustments the hitter makes in his swing and/or the speed with
which he transfers his weight around his center of mass, need to be automatic.
Each time there is a shift in the bodies movement around it’s center of mass, the
brain receives a new pattern of information. That pattern serves as check point
for an athlete and is automatically compared to the external pattern of information
the athlete is receiving. Based on previous experience the pattern either fits or it
doesn’t. If it fits, no conscious thought processes are required on the part of the
athlete and the brain camera can stay focused on the ball. If the pattern doesn’t
fit, in means some adjustment has to be made in the athlete’s swing. For
example, assume the pattern signals that the athlete has started to swing too
early. If slowing the swing requires conscious thinking on the part of the athlete
his focus on the ball is diminished.
Using Mental Rehearsal to Make Performance More Automatic
From a concentration standpoint, early in an athlete’s career, the first thing we
want to do is help the individual develop his physical skills to the point that
performance related behaviors and adjustments are automatic. Given enough
time, this can probably be accomplished with actual practice and competition,
assuming the athlete’s body can withstand the physical challenges associated
with constant performance. The development of the athlete’s ability to perform
automatically can be speeded up, without running the risk of over training and/or
breaking down, through the process of mental rehearsal. Because the goal is to
automate performance, however, how that rehearsal is engaged in is critical. Let
me describe the different things you need to consider when asking an athlete to
engage in mental rehearsal.
Learning vs. Maintaining vs. Improving
Perspective (Observer vs. Performer)
Speed of Rehearsal (slow vs. real time vs. fast)
Activity Flow (Components vs. Whole)
Content (Visual vs. Kinesthetic)
Frequency of Rehearsal
Emotional Intensity (Objective vs. Subjective)
How the athlete mentally rehearses performance should vary as a function of his
or her skill level. An athlete who is learning a new skill, or making a technical
change in an existing performance sequence will probably shift the perspective
he takes back and forth between watching others perform the skill the correct
way, and then mentally becoming the performer and executing the skill himself.
The learner will also slow down the speed with which he performs to give himself
time to make sure he is doing everything correctly. The learner should break the
skill down into key parts, and pay special attention to transition points. Initially the
transition points are the boundaries for each segment and the segments are
practiced in isolation. Then as skill builds the athlete pays more attention to
ensuring that the movement between each transition point is smooth. Because
the ultimate goal is to automate performance, engaging in kinesthetic rehearsal,
actually using the muscle groups while rehearsing is very important. I encourage
athletes to be as active and physical as the situation will allow. If they can stand
up and move around great. If they are rehearsing when others want them to be
doing something else (and most great athletes are), then the movements must
be very small and not obvious to others. This brings up the issue of frequency of
rehearsal. Great athletes don’t keep track of how much time they spend
rehearsing because they do it all the time.
The goal for an athlete is to reach the point where he is kinesthetically rehearsing
entire performance sequence, in real time, from a performance perspective (e.g.,
from inside his own body).
Once the athlete is capable of performing and of making adjustments without
having to consciously think about it, we are ready to begin work on learning to
control distractions or those thoughts and feelings that interfere with performance
in the actual competition. As you will see, developing the athlete’s confidence in
himself, in you as a coach, in his team, and in his training both mental and
physical will play a very critical role.
In most Olympic competitions, it is not the athlete who has the perfect
performance who wins, instead it is the athlete who makes the fewest mistakes,
and/or the athlete who recovers from minor problems most quickly. Because we
know that mistakes will be made, and that unexpected events will take place at
the Olympics, it becomes critical that our athletes have some strategies and/or
techniques available to reduce the amount of time it takes for them to let go of
distractions and refocus concentration to meet the competitive challenge. Let me
describe what happens to concentration, physiology, and performance in a down
his ski race when an athlete loses an edge. I’ll begin by talking about a very
The loss of an edge sends a pattern of stimuli to the brain that says something is
wrong. That pattern is perceived as a threat and causes almost instantaneous
changes in the skier’s body. Physically, muscles tighten and breathing and heart
rate accelerate. The focus of concentration narrows. Instinctively and
automatically the skier begins to make changes in body position in an attempt to
The confident skier becomes aware very early in the recovery process that he is
regaining control and will not fall. His confidence allows him to let go of any
thoughts and concerns and to almost immediately relax and get back over his
ski’s and into his racing position. For the confident skier, the loss of an edge and
the adjustments that had to be made, required little in the way of conscious
internal processing. As a result, the skier was able to maintain an external focus.
His perception of time wasn’t speeded up that much and he didn’t lose any
awareness of the course. Time lost was minimal.
When an athlete lacks confidence the recovery processes is slowed and this can
have a very dramatic effect on performance. The longer muscles remain tense,
the longer it takes the athlete to get back into his racing position, and the less
sensitivity and feel for the snow under his skies. The skier loses time, and without
flexibility in his legs the likelihood of a fall increases. Focus of concentration
remains narrow and the skier fails to see far enough down the hill to anticipate
and set up properly for turns. If he falls, the anxiety and concern that contributed
to his problem increases as does the likelihood of similar problems should he
lose an edge in the future.
To help the athlete recover more quickly we teach them to use a simple
breathing technique to help them regain control over both the physiological
changes that have occurred and their focus of concentration.
Athletes are taught to use the length of time it takes to exhale, to consciously
attend to their level of muscle tension, especially in their shoulders and lower
body, and to quickly adjust those tension levels and their body position relative to
their center of mass, so that they feel "centered." That occurs when the pattern of
stimulation the brain is getting from the athlete’s position signals everything is
okay. That momentary conscious internal monitoring of feelings shouldn’t take
more than a second of the athletes time. In that second, however, the athlete has
let go of distractions and has completed his recover. The skier is back in position,
over his skis, feeling the snow, and looking down the course.
We know from experience that there will be a great many potential distractions at
the Olympic games. If the athlete isn’t totally confident, and most of them are not,
then these distractions can become the difference between winning and losing.
As part of our preparation we want to minimize possible distractions, by
anticipating as many as possible and becoming adjust to those. For example, we
do as much as we can to prepare the athlete for the conditions he will encounter
in the holding area, when he first sees the crowd, as he waits for the start of the
race. We try and create simulation experiences for the athlete these may range
from actual competition in the Olympic setting, to visualization and mental
rehearsal. We encourage the athlete to try and feel the emotions and to rehearse
using the centering procedures to block out distractions, negative thoughts, or
doubts, and to refocus on preparation and/or the competition. I may talk an
athlete through a situation, asking them to rehearse as I talk. "You just false
started in 100 meter semi-final. Walking back to the blocks you find yourself
worrying about being disqualified. As that thought enters your mind it reminds
you to take a deep breath and to center yourself as you exhale. On the exhale
you make adjustments in your body position and as soon as you feel comfortable
focus your attention on the starter.
The centering process gets used by athletes at many different times. It may be
used routinely, to control distractions a second or two before the start of a
competition. It may be used in the warm up to recover from doubts or concerns
and to refocus on preparation. It may be used during the competition to facilitate
The thing to remember about the centering process is that by consciously
attending to the process of adjusting one’s body position relative to it’s center of
mass the athlete is accomplishing two things. First, by becoming centered he
eliminates any internal distractions associated with physical feelings of
discomfort. Second, by consciously attending to the centering process he is
effectively blocking out negative thoughts or mental distractions. Thus, at the end
of the centering process he has enough control to refocus concentration on the
task, and to get back into the zone, maintaining an external focus and reacting
automatically to the competitive situation.
There are a number of details about the centering technique that I don’t have
time to go into here. I have given a couple of copies of materials that go into
these details to the conference organizers.
Crisis Intervention at The Olympic Games
In a perfect world, if everything goes as planned athletes arrive at the Olympic
Games prepared and they perform up to their potential. Too often, however, that
isn’t the case. Between an athletes selection to the team and the games
themselves a lot can happen to reduce the athlete’s confidence and his or her
ability to voluntarily control emotions and focus of concentration.
An athlete gets a minor injury or becomes ill and misses some training. At a pre-
Olympic competition a competitor performs better than the athlete expected. The
athlete’s own training isn’t going as planned. The athlete arrives and in spite of
attempts to prepare emotionally for the intense attention and the challenges
presented by the games and village life, the athlete isn’t prepared. A multi-event
athlete performs more poorly than anticipated in one of his strong events.
Attempts on the part of the athlete to control negative thinking don’t work. When
the athlete tries to mentally rehearse he gets distracted and/or can’t focus long
enough to complete the rehearsal processes. As panic sets in, the athlete
tightens up physically and mentally. Focus of concentration narrows and
becomes more and more internal. The athlete pays attention to physical
symptoms associated with anxiety and that only increases feelings of worry and
doubt which in turn add to the feelings. The athlete is unable to get himself out of
that negative cycle. The longer those symptoms last, the more likely the athlete is
to make the mistake of over-training and becoming injured in an attempt to cope,
or the more likely he is to loss valuable energy through a lack of sleep and a
constantly high level of anxiety.
On these occasions, physiology and focus of concentration have changed
enough that the athlete cannot voluntarily change what is going on. Something
has to happen in the environment that captures the athlete’s attention and
refocuses it on neutral or task relevant cues. This is the area where the athlete’s
confidence in the coach and in support staff becomes critical. This is the area
where magic takes place.
The athlete’s anxiety and very narrow focus of concentration makes him more
susceptible to suggestion but it takes a fairly strong and consistent external
stimulus to break through and keep concentration focused in a way that will allow
the athlete’s level of anxiety and physiological arousal to decrease to
manageable levels. What technique will work depends on the athlete and on the
extent to which he or she trusts what you do and/or say. I have seen coaches
use massage very effectively to settle the athlete down, but the massage has to
be very firm, almost painful, and shouldn’t be too close to the actual competition.
I have used hypnosis and guided imagery. Getting the athlete involved in a
physical activity that requires an external focus of concentration will help. Make
sure it’s one that won’t lead to injury, and/or interfere with the athlete’s
performance. At times powerful movies and/or inspirational speeches can get
• Remember your goal is simple it’s to get the athlete to focus concentration
on something external and to keep that focus long enough to settle down.
In closing, I hope that you find this information helpful. As I mentioned, I have
provided some additional materials dealing with concentration skills training to
the conference organizers. Now, if you have any questions I will be happy to try
and answer them.
This article is courtesy of Robert Nideffer, Ph.D. founder of Enhanced
Performance Systems in San Diego, Ca. Website: http://www.enhanced-